By: Trevor Pour
Talking House Records' second installment of the Blueprints of Jazz series features distinguished tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, an artist who draws a great deal of his stylistic influence from the evolving works of John Coltrane and from his own frequent collaborations with partner Art Blakey. Harper has remained an active composer and performer since his introduction to the bebop/jazz scene in the late 1960s, specifically contributing to the advancement of free jazz and jazz/rock during his time with Gil Evans in the early 1970s. An integral element of Harper's career was his early years as an active vocalist in his grandmother's African Methodist Episcopal choir, leading to a strong, persistent spiritual element in his work, which remains vividly evident on this album.
In addition to Harper's presence, this record features three compositions that include the intellectual musings of controversial poet Amiri Baraka. These pieces are strongly evocative of Harper's preeminent 1973 release Capra Black and his subsequent role in jazz's black consciousness movement. They fit snugly into the historical framework of this release and the greater spirit of the Blueprints series. And, in what seems to be a recurring theme in the Blueprints series, this record features another young up-and-comer, trumpeter Keyon Harrold. Harrold was a student of Harper's at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and the contrast between Harper's past and Harrold's future is blisteringly evident herein.
The album opens with the appropriately lengthy pairing of Africa Revisited" (an adaptation of Coltrane's Africa") and Knowledge of Self," which both feature Baraka's spoken word poetry over a complex yet subdued groove. They draw the listener into a hip history of modern jazz evolution from its prototypic form in African soul to its early roots in the American consciousness. Neither the verse nor the beat overwhelms the listener at any point; they complement each other and make for an exceedingly pleasant and cerebral experience. Following these lyrical compositions, the album turns purely instrumental until its final moments. Highlights include Another Kind of Thoroughbred," a nod to the Harper/Evans tune Thoroughbred" from the 1973 release Svengali. The trumpet work of 27 year-old Harrold shines as brightly here as anywhere else on the album. The penultimate track, Cast The First Stone? (If You Yourself Have No Sins)," is my unequivocal favorite here. Something about the performance draws me in more than anything else found on this record. It has substance, heart and never feels hesitant or reserved. The character of the piece finds itself constantly changing, evolving, responding, creating and deconstructing. The interplay between Aaron Scott (drums) and Francesca Tanksley (piano) during the latter half is beautiful and unhurried, while the gradual incorporation of Harper's horn is both subtle and welcome. I could listen to this recording a thousand times and never tire of it. Closing out the record is another poetic pairing with Baraka entitled Oh If Only." As with Baraka's earlier appearance, his words are subdued yet relevant. His rhythm and tone again match the expressive vibrant tempo of Harper's wordless vocals, leading to a fitting close to the record.
Harper puts down his saxophone for only a portion of a single track, Amazing Grace." His deep, soulful baritone is accompanied by Tanksley's elegant piano and later by his own overdubbed saxophone, creating a unique one-man duet. That piece, although in many ways dissimilar to the remainder of the record, captures an element of Harper that defines the essence of the album. Some history is required here: Harper had previously only sung on one album, twelve years ago, and never intended to sing on another. But, after he performed Amazing Grace" as an instrumental solo a few years ago at a friend's funeral, he realized that the depth of the piece could only be met with the nuances of the human voice. So, in performing this piece, Harper reveals his willingness to bear himself fully on Blueprints. And not unlike his performance on Cast the First Stone," this emotional release will ring true in the ears of his listeners.